Restrictions on restaurants, gyms to ease as Alberta announces ‘benchmark’ reopening plan

EDMONTON — Provincial health restrictions on restaurants, gyms, and kids activities will be partially lifted on Feb. 8 as part of a phased reopening plan dependent mainly on hospital admissions.

The announcement of Step 1 of the four-stage plan was triggered Thursday, the province said, when hospitalizations fell below 600, a benchmark first unveiled to the public by the Premier on Friday afternoon.

“When a hospitalization benchmark is reached, decisions will be considered for moving to the next step of relaxing restrictions,” said Jason Kenney.

The Step 2 benchmark is 450 hospitalizations or fewer, and if reached, Kenney said the province will consider easing restrictions on retail businesses, community halls, hotels, banquet halls and conference centres.

Step 3 requires 300 hospitalizations or fewer and could allow more activities, including adult team sports and indoor gatherings. It may also mean a reopening of movie theatres, casinos, and libraries.

To hit Step 4, Alberta would need to have 150 COVID-19 hospitalizations or fewer and it could lead to eased restrictions on festivals, trade shows, and weddings.

“The more we see our numbers go down, the clearer our path forward becomes,” Kenney said, adding hospitalization levels will be reevaluated three weeks after each step is reached. If after three weeks, hospitalizations are “in the range” of the next benchmark, the next step will be considered.

As of Friday, there were 594 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the province, including 110 in ICU.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, also announced 543 new cases discovered on 11,591 tests. The province’s positivity rate was at approximately 4.5 per cent.

Hinshaw also announced 12 new cases of the COVID-19 variant have been detected since Monday, bringing the provincial total to 37 (31 of the U.K. variant, six of the South Africa variant). Dr. Hinshaw said all but three cases are linked to international travel and that all three non-travel cases were found within the same household.

STEP 1 DETAILS

Restaurants, cafes and pubs can resume in-person dining on Feb 8., a day after the Super Bowl, with a maximum of six people per table. The business is required to collect the personal contact information of at least one member of the dining party, as part of the reopening. Liquor service is to end at 10 p.m. Dining can only go as late as 11 p.m.

Gyms and fitness centres will only be allowed to open for one-on-one training sessions, by appointment only. Trainers should remain masked during the session, but clients are not required to wear a mask while exercising, according to the new guidelines. More than one trainer/client pair can be allowed in the same space at one time, provided each pair remains three metres apart at all times.

The loosened restrictions also allow for some children’s sport activities, such as physical education classes, if they’re related to school activities.

Kenney condemns deliberate health order defiance

There has been pressure in recent days from both restaurant and gym owners to lift restrictions.

In the past week, several rural restaurants opened for in-person dining in blatant defiance of the public health order.

Gym owners have also grown frustrated with restrictions preventing them from opening. Roughly 200 gyms had previously planned to open on Feb. 8, regardless of whether they were directed to or not.

Asked about the seemingly growing movement of disobedience, Kenney said he understands the frustration, but deliberately violating health measures is only going to make matters worse.

“It is regrettable to see that some people in a very deliberate way are thumbing their nose at the law,” said Kenney, “When they do it, they are thumbing their nose at our ICU nurses who have been working around the clock.”

“It’s clear to us there’s going to have to be stronger enforcement action to maintain a level playing field so that law-abiding individuals and businesses are not punished for respecting the rules,” Kenney said.

Restaurants, bars, lounges and fitness centres have been closed to in-person services since Dec. 13.

Reopening will only increase case numbers, hospitalizations: biologist

At least one health data analyst is not optimistic that lifting restrictions will result in a long-term decrease in COVID-19 cases.

“That’s just the physics of it. It cannot go a different way,” said Malgorzata Gasperowicz, developmental biologist and researcher at the University of Calgary.

“That was the aim with reopening in May and I think people hoped we could manage it. But it was growing, slowly, until it exploded in the fall. And that will be the case now, especially with the new variant,” she said.

Gasperowicz predicted that Alberta isn’t likely to see an increase in cases for some weeks following any type of reopening, noting a lag time typically seen after restrictions are loosened.

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